September 23, 2010
Abundant gamebird populations will melt gun barrels, bruise shoulders and give gun dogs plenty of action.
Southeast from the town of Paysandu in extreme west central Uruguay you drive into farmland replete with small grains like sorghum, wheat, soybeans and corn. But these farm fields are also amply strewn with pasture lands for one of the country's most important export products -- beef.
Scattered through all this are dairy farms as well -- all this farm country ideal habitat for doves, pigeons, and one of my favorite gamebirds in all the world, the spotted tinamou, more simply known as perdiz. Perdiz translates into English as partridge.
I've been lucky enough to hunt perdiz over all of Uruguay where this upland bird is abundant, as well as shooting them in several provinces in Argentina. There are 14 different species of tinamou in South America, and most of them are protected.
Depending upon which province you are hunting in Uruguay the daily limit is 10 or 12.
Reminding a scattergunner of the liberal limits on wild quail from years back, perdiz can make for a wonderful afternoon of shooting.
Most of the dogs I have hunted with down there have been Brittanys, but I have also hunted over English setters and pointers. Because the birds are pretty abundant it is not that difficult to make a good dog. But as much as I have enjoyed great dog work throughout South America, I have never enjoyed hunting with one as much as Emma.
Emma hunts out of San Juan Lodge in an area east of the town of Young. Earlier that morning I had enjoyed a daybreak hunt for doves as they left a huge roost, but we were back at the lodge early -- long before lunch would be ready -- so I got in the truck with bird dog handler Martin (pronounced Mar-teen in Spanish) Chiesa and his helper Santiago.
We didn't drive far. Martin checked the wind, and after doing so he drove the truck to the opposite end of the cattle pasture. Once out of the truck he opened the door to Emma's crate (I didn't even know her name at the time), and I was not overly impressed with her looks -- a pointer amply ticked with black spots, a black head with a white streak on top. I commented, "I see you have a Brittany on the other side of the dog box."
Martin came back with broken English, "Yeah, but we'll probably run this one most of the day." With that statement I figured he liked Emma best.
We hadn't moved far from the truck when Emma skidded into a point, hardly classic with her low tail, but she was certainly intense. I hurriedly loaded my 28 gauge Caesar Guerini over-and-under and then walked briskly to Emma. But these spotted tinamou are not your classic bird, in that they don't sit tight. In fact, they run like the dickens, and you wonder how they can do that because the pasture grass is often short, though you seldom see them skedaddle away.
I had been this route before, so I was pretty much convinced Emma had more work to do.
Following up a running perdiz is anything but easy for these dogs. Some get too close and flush the bird before the shooter can catch up. Some dogs putter with the scent too much, allowing the bird to get far, far ahead. It takes special dog savvy to be able to handle this bird, and you can bet not every perdiz runs off in the same way.
Many times I've seen perdiz make a wide running 180 degree turn, so that the dog has to work with the wind coming over the back of its neck. This is a very tough test, but in two days of hunting over Emma I never saw her fooled by this tactic. Realizing the wind was no longer in her favor, she simply slowed down a bit to make sure nothing bad happened.
I eventually bagged that first perdiz. The field we were working was maybe 1000 yards long, and Martin had us working almost directly into the wind. Time after time Emma locked solidly on a point, but then she'd wait until I came alongside, when Martin would encourage her to break point with, "Muy bien, Chiquita."
Even when the dog does everything right, you can still expect wild flushes, with the bird taking wing 30, 40 or even 50 yards ahead of the dog.
This is simply the wild nature of a great and wary gamebird. By the time we reached the end of that pasture I had bagged four of the little tinamou, plus missed a few, as well as noting the invariable wild flushes. Santiago had stayed with the truck, so on Martin's signal he drove up.
"Nick, we are going to work this field one more time, but we will start maybe 75 yards to the west of where we started to work the field this last time, so hop in the truck if you please," Martin advised. Santiago was already loading Emma into her crate.
So we worked the opposite side of that field, and I think we flushed almost an equal number of tinamou. Some of the traits that really impressed me about Emma were her handling, her staunchness until I got up to her, and her tender-mouthed retrieving.
Handling emma Both in North America and South America, including working my own dogs at home, so many dogs seem on the edge, requiring a lot of so-called "handling." On this trip I hunted with some other very good dogs, but there were several that were out on the wing, probably way too far, and it took more than a gentle "Acaa" in Spanish (meaning "back") to turn them to the front again.
In contrast Martin said almost nothing to Emma. She would range 35 to 75 yards to the right, turn on her own, range back to the front of the handler and shooter, and then range 35 to 75 yards in the other direction. If Martin ever had to turn her, all it took was one word or one short toot on his whistle.
Emma was no speed demon. But she did not potter a bit. She had one speed for hours, an easy lope that had her covering ground with ease -- another of her traits that impressed me.
Emma is a dropper, I later discovered. Her father is a registered English setter named Dali, and her mother, Donna, is a registered pointer. Emma came out looking like a pointer and very similar in looks to her mother.
Dali, the sire, belongs to Mercedes Barran, who runs San Juan Lodge in Uruguay where I hunted. When Dali was born he was one of nine puppies, and Mercedes would walk them several times a day as soon as they were mobile enough.
She told me, "It didn't take me long to come to the opinion that there were three special puppies from this litter of nine, and Dali was one of them. This setter was pointing butterflies not long out of the figurative cradle."
Quickly, Dali became "her" dog, and Mercedes traveled back and forth from Montevideo and the lodge with Dali. But at 18 months she lost Dali in Montevideo. She put signs up everywhere she could think of, including a photo of Dali, as well as a reward.
Mercedes eventually gave up hope of finding Dali, so much that she bought another dog for company. It turned out that the folks who found Dali both worked, so they had to keep the dog in their bathroom all the time they were away. This couple knew this was not a suitable situation for the dog, so they made arrangements to take Dali to a farm they knew.
The day before they were ready to leave for the country with Dali they saw Mercedes's sign at a bus stop. They called, and Mercedes was convinced they did not have Dali, but when she went to see the dog there was a mighty happy reunion.
The author with several perdiz. He has hunted them often, but never behind a better pointing dog than Emma.
So Dali, an orange and ticked setter, is now eight years old, and Emma is four. She has three hunting seasons under her belt, and the number of flushes Martin thinks she has been involved in is quite impressive.
A long Season
The season on perdiz runs about 90 days in this part of Uruguay, and Martin told me that Emma hunts an average of 75 days a season. That's a heck of a lot, but get this — on an average day she is involved in 50 flushes (we had 60 flushes the hours we hunted together) -- so 50 flushes times 75 days times 3 years means Emma has been involved with over 10,000 flushing perdiz. Oh, that I could have 10,000 ruffed grouse flushes in three years over one of my dogs!
Another factor that is a very big help to Emma is her handler Martin. At every possible opportunity he takes one of the lodge personnel with him and his hunter(s). Before each hunt starts he checks the wind, then sets up hunting the field with the wind in Emma's face. Further, when he gets to the end of that field he will kennel Emma and get the hunters in the truck and work that field again, or hunt another field, but always into the wind.
It may take only a few minutes to load the dog and drive back to the opposite end of the field, or to a very nearby field. By the time they get to the new starting point the hunter finishes his or her drink, and all the while Emma is getting a short five to 10 minute rest, has had a good drink of water and maybe her belly splashed with a bucket of water if it's overly hot. This game plan of always hunting into the wind is, of course, very favorable to any dog, but at San Juan it's pretty easy to pull off consistently.
Of course, the wind is almost never straight down the field you are hunting, but almost always favoring one side or the other. Realize this as you are walking into a point -- and know that most perdiz are going to use the wind to their advantage upon escape. So if the wind was coming just slightly from the left, I walked in on Emma's points to her right side. It was Martin that suggested I do this, and it really paid off. Maybe that's a good tip for you to use here at home as well.
Emma was also quick to retrieve, and did so with a tender mouth that never broke flesh -- and these spotted tinamou have very tender flesh, as well as feathers that seem quite loosely attached. If Emma didn't see a bird go down Martin would just hurry to the site and encourage her with his Spanish, "Che." Obviously, this pair enjoys a great relationship.
I only hope that one day I can return to Uruguay and San Juan Lodge and get behind Emma for more sessions chasing the spotted tinamou. I wouldn't be surprised if she's even better than ever.
If You Want To Go...
Detail Company Adventures books hunters into San Juan Lodge. Though this is an old estancia it has just recently been taken over by Mercedes Barran and completely remodeled for shooters. And it's not only perdiz you can hunt here.
The hunting for huge numbers of doves is a very, very short drive away. There is also some pigeon shooting available, and an early morning duck hunt can be quite productive. Combine ducks with perdiz one day, doves with perdiz a second day, and then select the combination you like best for the third day.
The season runs May through July. The contact is Jeri Booth, Detail Company Adventures, 1-800-292-2213. --N.S.